If you’re looking for the next trendy hot beverage, look no further than yerba mate. This traditional South American herbal infusion is brewed from the leaves and stems of the yerba mate plant (also known as Ilex paraguariensis), a shrub-like tree that belongs to the holly family. The drink is commonly consumed in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil, but you may also find mate as an ingredient in energy drinks or other herbal infusions in the health food section of your grocery store.
While not technically a tea (a descriptor reserved for beverages brewed from the Camellia sinensis plant), mate does contain caffeine, which means it is a stimulant. Mate is often touted as an antioxidant, fat-fighting super beverage that improves mental focus and energy. Some suggest that mate can help prevent certain kinds of cancer and may have neuroprotective effects against Alzheimer, dementia, and Parkinson disease.
But is there any evidence to support these claims? Here are the health benefits and risks of making mate a regular part of your diet, according to studies and health experts.
Proponents of mate as a health supplement claim it can relieve fatigue, ease depression, help with weight management, and even treat headaches. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, there is "limited evidence" that mate improves these conditions.
An article in Scientific American posits that drinking mate can result in increased energy, improved mental focus, and enhanced sports performance. The article also notes that mate increases antioxidant activity. The article’s author, however, is quick to note that many of these benefits can be attributed to almost any caffeinated beverage. Caffeine stimulates the nervous system, increasing alertness, enhancing athletic performance, and relieving fatigue. The author also warns not to expect any significant weight loss, which is primarily driven by dietary choices and physical activity.
That said, a number of studies have produced evidence that yerba mate consumption is associated with positive health outcomes.
For example, a current review published in Annals of Agricultural and Environmental Medicine examined the health benefits of drinking mate. After analyzing the findings of numerous studies, the authors concluded that “this beverage shows a number of beneficial health effects, including: a protective effect on liver cells, stimulation of the central nervous system, anti-inflammatory effect, as well as a positive effect on the cardiovascular system.”
The authors also noted that drinking mate "may exert a beneficial effect on human health and its consumption is recommended in the treatment of obesity and while practicing sports."
Another study, published in the Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, examined mate’s effect on hypertension, dyslipidemia, and coronary diseases in postmenopausal women, who are at a higher risk of developing these conditions.
Researchers analyzed a cohort of 95 postmenopausal women, who completed questionnaires regarding risk factors and diagnosis of cardiovascular diseases and rates of mate consumption. Those who consumed more than 1 L per day of mate had “significantly fewer diagnoses of coronary disease, dyslipidemia, and hypertension.” They also noted that glucose serum levels were lower in the group who drank more mate.
Researchers concluded that the findings indicate mate consumption is beneficial for the cardiovascular and metabolic systems. While further research is required to confirm the mechanisms, researchers posited that the leaves of the mate plant are “rich in phenolic components, which may have antioxidant, vasodilating, hypocholesterolemic, and hypoglycemic properties.”
The antioxidant content of mate has been the focus of research into its potential health benefits. A study published in Frontiers in Neurology this year looked into the relationship between the consumption of mate-based beverages and the risk of developing Parkinson disease.
Researchers examined a cohort of 200 patients with Parkinson and 200 control subjects and found that higher consumption of mate was inversely associated with Parkinson. Researchers concluded that any neuroprotective effect may be due to the caffeine and antioxidant components of mate.
Finally, a study published in the Spanish journal Nutricion Hospitalaria looked at the purported lipid-lowering and weight-management properties of mate, which are often attributed to the polyphenols and saponins in the plants.
Researchers studied a cohort of 119 overweight women between 25-50 years old, who were divided into three groups: one was placed on a diet that included drinking mate; another was placed on a diet that included water consumption; the third was only instructed to drink mate, without any prescribed diet. After 12 weeks, researchers measured total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.
They found that while total cholesterol decreased in all three groups, LDL cholesterol decreased in both groups with mate, and HDL cholesterol decreased only in the group that drank mate without following a diet. Similarly, triglyceride levels dropped only in the mate and diet group. The study authors concluded that daily mate consumption can help reduce total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, and can facilitate a drop in triglyceride levels if accompanied by a low-calorie diet.
Of course, the benefits of drinking yerba mate come with some drawbacks. As pointed out by the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), while some people claim that certain components in mate can help prevent cancer cell growth, evidence is lacking. In fact, according to the cancer center, research suggests that mate contains other components that may cause cancer.
“High doses and prolonged use of mate tea are linked to increased risk of prostate, bladder, oral, esophageal, lung, and head and neck cancers,” wrote MSK, adding that heavy alcohol use or smoking in combination with long-term mate use may increase the risk of cancer.
Additionally, MSK notes, yerba mate may interfere with chemotherapy drugs, antidepressants, other stimulants, or blood pressure and heart medications. Side effects include arrhythmias, sleep problems, upset stomach, and anxiety/restlessness.
The cancer warning is supported in the aforementioned review in Annals of Agricultural and Environmental Medicine, which states that the regular consumption of very hot beverages (including mate) may increase the risk of developing some types of cancer, including mouth, lung, and throat.
Read more about tea and other foods that can be toxic in excess at MDLinx.